Hippolyte Taine

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Hippolyte Taine
Hippolyte taine.jpg
Portrait of Hippolyte Taine by Léon Bonnat.
Hippolyte Adolphe Taine

(1828-04-21)21 April 1828
Vouziers, France
Died5 March 1893(1893-03-05) (aged 64)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Academic background
Alma mater École Normale Supérieure
Influences Herder [1] · Germaine [2]

Taine had a profound effect on French literature; the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica asserted that "the tone which pervades the works of Zola, Bourget and Maupassant can be immediately attributed to the influence we call Taine's." [4] Through his work on the French Revolution, Taine has been credited as having ‘forged the architectural structure of modern French right-wing historiography’. [5]

Early years

Taine was born in Vouziers [6] into a fairly prosperous Ardennes family. His father, a lawyer, his uncle, and his grandfather encouraged him to read eclectically and offered him art and music lessons.

In 1841, Taine, then aged 13, lost his father [4] and, was sent to a boarding school in Paris, in the Institution Mathé, whose classes were conducted in the Collège Bourbon, located in the Batignolles district. He excelled in his studies and in 1847 obtained two Baccalauréat degrees (Science and Philosophy) and received the honorary prize of the concours. He was awarded a first in the entrance examination of the letters section of the École Normale Supérieure, to which he was admitted in November 1848. [4] Among the 24 students in the letters section, he is the classmate of Francisque Sarcey (who, in his Souvenirs de jeunesse ("Memories of Youth") painted a portrait of young Hippolyte at the Rue d'Ulm campus) and Edmond About. But his attitude—he had a reputation for stubbornness—and his intellectual independence from then fashionable ideas— embodied by Victor Cousin—caused him to fail the examination for the national Concours d’Agrégation in philosophy in 1851. [7] After his essay on sensation was rejected, he abandoned the social sciences and turned to literature. [8] Having relocated to Province, he took up teaching positions in Nevers and Poitiers, during which time he continued his intellectual development. In 1853, he obtained a doctorate at the Sorbonne. His thesis, Essai sur les fables de La Fontaine , which would be later published in revised form in 1861. His subsequent Essay on Livy won a prize from the Académie française in 1854. [9]

Taine adopted the positivist and scientist ideas that emerged around this time.

After defending his doctorate, he was automatically transferred to Besançon, but he refused this assignment. He settled first in Paris, where he enrolled in the medical school. From there, he went on a medical cure in the Pyrenees in 1855, after which he wrote his famous Voyage aux Pyrénées, and began contributing numerous philosophical, literary, and historical articles to the Revue des deux Mondes and the Journal des débats, two major newspapers at the time.

He then took leave and travelled to England, where he spent six weeks. In 1863 he published his History of English Literature in Five Volumes. Bishop Félix Dupanloup, who had made it his career to oppose the election of agnostic intellectuals to the French Academy, opposed the latter's awarding Taine a prize for this work. [10] In 1868, he married Thérèse Denuelle, daughter of Alexandre Denuelle. They had two children: Geneviève, wife of Louis Paul-Dubois, and Émile.

The immense success of his work allowed him, not only to live by his pen, but also to be named professor of the History of Art and Aesthetics at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and professor of history and German at the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr. [11] He also taught at Oxford (1871), where he was a Doctor in Law. In 1878, he was elected member of the French Academy by 20 out of the 26 voters. [12] Taine was interested in many subjects, including art, literature, but especially history. Deeply shaken by the defeat of 1870, as well as by the insurrection (and violent repression) of the Paris Commune, Taine became fully devoted to his major historical work, The Origins of Contemporary France (1875-1893), on which he worked until his death, and which had a significant impact. Conceived by Taine with the aim of understanding the France of his day, the six-volume work achieved originality in its use of a long perspective to analyse the causes of the French Revolution. In particular, Taine denounced the artificiality of the revolution's political constructions (the excessively abstract and rational spirit of Robespierre, for example), which, in his mind, violently contradicted the natural and slow growth of the institutions of a State.

In 1885, while visiting the Hospital de la Salpêtriere, Taine and Joseph Delboeuf attended a session of hypnotism in which Jean-Martin Charcot experienced vesications (blistering) by suggestion.

Taine died on 5 March 1893. He was buried in the Roc de Chère National Natural Reserve, Talloires, on the shores of Lake Annecy. [13] Taine had bought the Boringes property in Menthon-Saint-Bernard (in Haute-Savoie), in order to work there every summer, and had served as councillor of the commune.


Taine's writing on the Revolution was, and remains, popular in France. While admired by liberals like Anatole France, it has served to inform the conservative view of the Revolution, since Taine rejected its principles [14] [15] as well as the French Constitution of 1793, on account of their being dishonestly presented to the people. [16] He argued that the Jacobins had responded to the centralisation of the ancien régime with even greater centralisation and favoured the individualism of his concepts of regionalism and nation. Taine's alternative to rationalist liberalism influenced the social policies of the Third Republic. [17]

On the other hand, Taine has likewise received criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, his politics being idiosyncratic, complex, and difficult to define. Among others, attacks came from the Marxist historian George Rudé, a specialist in the French Revolution and in ‘history from below’, on account of Taine's view of the crowd; [18] and from the Freudian Peter Gay who described Taine's reaction to the Jacobins as stigmatisation. [19] Yet, Alfred Cobban, who advocated a revisionist view of the French Revolution in opposition to the orthodox Marxist school, considered Taine's account of the French Revolution "a brilliant polemic". [20] Taine's vision of the Revolution stands in contrast to the Marxist interpretations that gained prominence in the 20th century, as was embodied by Albert Mathiez, Georges Lefebvre, and Albert Soboul before Alfred Cobban and François Furet put forth their respective revisionist accounts.

Notwithstanding academic politics, when Alphonse Aulard, a historian of the French Revolution, analysed Taine's text, he showed that the numerous facts and examples presented by Taine to support his account proved substantially correct; few errors were found by Aulard—fewer than in his own texts, as reported by Augustin Cochin.

In his other writings Taine is known for his attempt to provide a scientific account of literature, a project that has led him to be linked to sociological positivists, although there were important differences. In his view, the work of literature was the product of the author's environment, and an analysis of that environment could yield a perfect understanding of that work; this stands in contrast with the view that the work of literature is the spontaneous creation of genius. Taine based his analysis on the categories of what in English would be translated today as "nation", "environment" or "situation", and "time". [21] [22] Armin Koller has written that in this Taine drew heavily from the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, although this has been insufficiently recognised, [23] while the Spanish writer Emilia Pardo Bazán has suggested that a crucial predecessor to Taine's idea was Germaine de Staël’s work on the relationship between art and society. [2] Nationalist literary movements and post-modern critics alike have made use of Taine’s concepts, the former to argue for their unique and distinct place in literature [24] and the latter to deconstruct the texts with regards to the relationship between literature and social history.

Taine was criticised, including by Émile Zola (who owed a great deal to him), for not taking sufficiently into account the individuality of the artist. Zola argued that an artist’s temperament could lead him to make unique artistic choices distinct from the environment that shaped him, and gave Édouard Manet as a principal example. Édouard Lanson argued that Taine’s environmentalist methodology could not, on its own, account for genius. [25]


Taine's influence on French intellectual culture and literature was significant. He had a special relationship, in particular, with Émile Zola. [26] As critic Philip Walker says of Zola, "In page after page, including many of his most memorable writings, we are presented with what amounts to a mimesis of the interplay between sensation and imagination which Taine studied at great length and out of which, he believed, emerges the world of the mind." The Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, was fascinated with both Zola and Taine early on (although he eventually concluded that Taine's influence on literature had been negative). [27] Paul Bouget and Guy de Maupassant were also heavily influenced by Taine.

Taine shared a correspondence with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who later referred to him in Beyond Good and Evil as "the first of living historians". [28] He was also the subject of Stefan Zweig's doctoral thesis, "The Philosophy of Hippolyte Taine." [29] Taine was also read by Peter Kropotkin, who described him as truly understanding the French Revolution, because he "studied the movements preceding the revolution of July 14," or as he quoted Taine himself, "I know of three hundred outbreaks before July 14." [30]


Works in English translation

Selected articles

See also

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  1. Evans, Brad (2005). Before Cultures. University of Chicago Press, p. 90.
  2. 1 2 DuPont, Denise (2003). "Masculinity, Femininity, Solidarity: Emilia Pardo Bazan's Construction of Madame de Stael and George Sand". In: Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4, 372–393.
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  21. Terrier, Jean (2011). Visions of the Social: Society as a Political Project in France, 1750-1950. BRILL, pp. 25–26.
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  23. "Taine's indebtedness to Herder has not yet fully been recognized. Every element of Taine's theory is containd in Herder's writings." – Koller, Armin H. (1912). "Johann Gottfried Herder and Hippolyte Taine: Their Theories of Milieu," PMLA, Vol. 27, p. xxxix.
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  27. Basdekis, Demetrios (1973). "Unamuno and Zola: Notes on the Novel", Modern Language Notes, Vol. 88, No. 2, p. 369.
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  30. Peter Kropotkin (March 5, 1902). "Kropotkin to Nettlau, March 5, 1902 : On Individualism and the Anarchist Movement in France". revoltlib.com.
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  35. Stephen, Leslie (1873). "Taine's History of English Literature," The Fortnightly Review, Vol. XX, pp. 693–714.
  36. Sainte-Beuve, Charles Augustin (1890). "Taine’s 'History of English Literature'." In: Essays. London: Walter Scott. Ltd., pp. 228–265.
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  38. Morley, John (1876). "M. Taine's New Work," The Fortnightly Review, Vol. XXV, pp. 370–384.
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